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U.S. Forces Deploy To Poland In Effort To Counter Russian Aggression


It's a sight not seen for a generation. This morning, elements of an American armored brigade are rolling from Germany into Poland. It's part of the biggest U.S. military deployment in Europe since the end of the Cold War. And the move is part of a broader U.S. and European effort to curtail Russian aggression in the region. We're joined now by NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She is in the Polish town of Zagan. This is where the U.S. soldiers will be training with Polish troops over the next couple of weeks. Soraya, thanks for being with us.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Yes. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about this scene? What was the crossing like?

NELSON: Well, it happened at a quiet border post between Poland and Germany about a hundred miles southeast of Berlin. You don't have any passport or customs checks there because the countries are part of a free border agreement. So you had Polish military police escorting a convoy of humvees and other armed vehicles. And it's interesting because they're still painted beige from their last deployment in Kuwait. American, Polish and German officers then took part in a brief handover and the U.S. commander of this unit - or of this team, Colonel Christopher Norrie - said the team work in cohesion and rapid deployment of this group or his group will serve to counter any acts of aggression against NATO.

MARTIN: So how is Russia responding to this?

NELSON: Well, Russia's sort of had a different take. Certainly at the Kremlin, they were saying they saw this as a threat to their national security, that they were very concerned about this build-up in Poland.

MARTIN: Where are these U.S. troops from?

NELSON: They're from Fort Carson, and they're part of an armored brigade that will ultimately deploy with about 3,500 soldiers as well as 87 tanks, 144 Bradleys and hundreds upon hundreds of other armored vehicles. It's the first time that there are American tanks in Europe in these kind of numbers since 2013. What's interesting is that we didn't see any tanks or Bradleys today, however, because they're actually coming in by rail and by trailers. But they will be coming in along with the other troops, and their deployment will last about 9 months which will be part of a continuous rotational presence of armored U.S. elements here in Europe.

MARTIN: And is the brigade staying in Poland?

NELSON: Some of the elements will, and they're going to be training here for a few weeks in Zagan, as you mentioned. But others are going to head North to the Baltic states and other elements of the brigade are going to head to Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary where they will train with local troops there.

MARTIN: So as I understand it, the Polish defense minister had suggested that this U.S. deployment was moved up to make it happen before Trump's inauguration. Are you hearing that? What do we know about that claim?

NELSON: Well, the American officials I spoke to today - they say they were involved with the planning. They claim it wasn't moved up, and they say that the Polish comments amounted to a misunderstanding or a mistranslation. But there certainly is a lot of eagerness here in Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe to have the troops here before Donald Trump takes office. That comes partly because of his campaign remarks in which he criticizes NATO and was urging Europe to take care of its own security issues. And it's here in Zagan, the mayor told me that he hopes the new America administration will not take the troops away once Donald Trump takes office, and that it's not only in the Polish interest, but the American interests for the troops to stay here to be better prepared for any aggression.

MARTIN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson with U.S. troops in Poland. Thanks so much, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.